Archive | February 2013

Subplots in our stories

In our everyday world, our lives criss- cross, overlap and collide. The “subplots” or multitude of co-existing daily experiences of our lives are the connective threads that weave together our intertwined destinies. They remind us that we depend on one another, whether through happy and healthy relationships or inescapable conflicts. We need each other in order to enrich the texture of our lives. The subplots of our lives- the various ways we are connected to one another- perhaps through situations at work versus experiences with family, or educational pursuits versus parenting goals deepen our mutual main plot – to survive.

A story may need subplots the same way our lives need them. The characters in each subplot should be in close proximity to one another and they need a good reason to be in the same story at all as they intersect in one another’s lives. Each subplot needs to affect the outcome of the main plot. Perhaps one moral dilemna is solved that will ultimately support the moral environment of the entire novel.

Subplots broaden the scope of the story’s escalating tension or action,which ultimately have the purpose of reflecting the theme of the novel. Just as each subplot or situation of our lives works together to strengthen the connecting fibers that comprise our own stories, they should intersect and collide throughout the novel- enriching and deepening the main plotline along the way.

But the writer must keep in mind that the subplots must illuminate and uphold the theme or themes running through the main plotline and they must be supportive, not separate. By creating separate subplots beneath the layers or even running parallel to the main plotline, the writer risks isolating each “sub storyline” and frustrating the reader who may lose the ability to focus on too many separate plots going on at the same time. Multitasking is a good thing but only when the main goal is eventually reached and not lost along the way.

Your characters and their “setbacks”

“If your characters solve something without a setback you do not have a story.” In the March/April edition of Writer’s Digest, Steven James discusses this rationale as part of his suggestions for shaping and driving the story forward. He explains that the people surrounding the story, or the characters, represent the narrative forces pressing in upon the story to shape it. Furthermore, in each scene of the story, something must be altered, perhaps as a consequence of whatever or whoever presses in upon the story, or there is no scene. If the characters solve something without a conflict or setback -the story is lacking -if there is a story there at all.

As in life, people move forward as they accomplish goals, overcome obstacles, push through hard times and resolve whatever was not right in their world. If there is no struggle, nothing to fix, nothing to pursue or improve, then there is no change, no sense of accomplishment. Wouldn’t this make for a dull life? Although we do not want to invite difficulty into our lives; we do learn best through mistakes and the challenges we encounter. We become stronger in our beliefs, our philosophies, our morals, our understanding of others and the need for us to connect and work together. We become better people.

The story created by the writer for her reader is a mirror of real life, therefore; it only makes sense that our characters must suffer through a setback before moving forward just as an arrow must be pulled backward before it is propelled forward.

Ultimately, what the writer wonders about -the rest of the world also wonders about.

Getting started; coming up with a good idea for a story is not as easy as one would think it would be. Even experienced writers often struggle with how to fine tune an abstract idea in preparation for a new story. A good peice of advice I have often heard experienced, published writers give new writers is to “ask a question” and then try to answer it. Show the world how a problem dealing with some challenging aspect of life can potentially be solved.

Most people share the same problems at some point in their lives, as human beings are actually more alike than they are different. When the writer expresses her own fears, her disappointments, her tragedies, her successes, her joys she connects us all. By asking a question and unraveling the answer through the pages of the story, the writer has the power to help the reader in her discovery period and subsequent healing.

Perhaps the writer asks the question about whether people have the ability to re-wire their brains to feel acceptance and love after having been neglected as a newborn for the first critical years of life. The story could have a protagonist who is bitter and hateful toward himself and others as he strives to be loved and to learn to love others, while re-visiting the steps he took during his past that led him to the place he ended up. Perhaps as he moves through the chapters he finds himself and in doing so finds the ability to love, therefore; solving his problem and potentially solving the readers’ problems to some degree. At the very least, the story has the power to comfort the reader to know he is not alone.

After all, if the writer asks the question, chances are a good portion of the rest of the world has asked it at some point in some way as well.

Energy, Imagination and Writing Talent

In Arthur Plotnik’s article titled ” You can conquer Writer’s Block” in May 2012 “The Writer ” Magazine, he says “some genres have certain conventions that do need attention, but the rest is energy, imagination and writing talent.”

He continues to say that in fiction, it is not always the expertise that counts (the expert in a certain profession or situation), but the illusion of expertise, many times, that could count even more. He explains how art is an illusion, done with stage effects that seem even more real than reality.

What he is trying to say here is that a writer does not need to know the subject inside and out to write a good story; she just needs to have a sharp eye and stay a few engaging steps ahead of the reader. Furthermore, the writer who is new to the subject matter has the advantage of looking at her material with a fresh view, being as enthusiastic about learning about the topic as she is about sharing it with her readers.

Although it pays to write from experience, or “write what you know”- as most writers suggest, there is also potential for a great story when written by an enthusiastic writer who is passionate about her idea and conveys it in the tale she tells as opposed to the “burned out” professional who has possibly been trapped in his situation too long to be able to turn something old into something fresh.

I share Mr. Plotnik’s suggestion to maintain the energy to sneak time in your day to write, explore the depths of your imagination and tweak that burning talent that has been forever threatening to erupt through the thickest of writer’s blocks. And then write….

Make your characters be trapped on a train….

In order for a writer to make an extreme impact upon the reader, she should consider making the story be about more than just the individual. How about the organization that intimidates,mistreats or misguides to achieve compliance ( government anyone?). After all,simply “breaking the law” isn’t as frightening as an entire social order headed by the wrong person in charge.

Although we tend to think of the ” organization ” as something large such as the government or a large corporation, the story could be about a school administration, a small town commitee or even a sports team – just as long as the writer developes a good idea and spins a tale with enough conflict or action to keep the reader hooked to the end!

I have often associated writing with psychology, among other things, because so much of what we write about reflects the real issues people go through at various points in their lives. Sometimes the reader picks up a book because she is eager for resolution or perhaps she is just looking for proof that she is not alone in her battle, or of course, she may be looking simply for escape. Whatever way one looks at it, the stories we read and write touch our lives in some way, therefore; it is the writer’s job to touch with as much stimulation as possible. If the story has the protagonist facing the injustices of the “organization”, the writer should set up the story to not only tell the individual’s story but to convey the more global message to the world.

By trapping the passengers (readers) on a train ( in the story) that is heading for disaster (suspense,conflict, drama ) the writer has done her job to entertain, enlighten or move the reader and hopefully in the process, by the time the train pulls into the station safely, the reader got off the train a better informed, more grateful person than she was before she boarded!

Keep protagonists wanting, needing, hoping for survival

People do things out of motivation created by either some internal force we are fighting within us or by an external force on the outside, such as global politics for example, or both. An “internal force “could be a nagging guilt over something that happened in the past or maybe a chronic obsession which a forbidden love. An external force could be a financial one or perhaps criminal or sociological having to do with society’s injustices.

In Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” the protagonist Jean Valjean is motivated to feed his family but must fight obstacles involving social and political forces working against him, subsequently throwing him deeper into poverty as he also must hide from Inspector Javert as he fights to be free.

In order to grab the reader’s interest and maintain it through the rest of the story, the writer must create high stakes: a personal goal for the protagonist to pursue ( physical survival, a love interest, political power) while fighting for something of value he is threatened to lose ( his life or life of a loved one).

As a reader, I become most affected by stories that involve characters who enlighten society on a broad scale, perhaps teaching us how to be human or how to tolorate those who are different, while engaging us in their personal dramas.

How often do we hear stories in the news involving people we do not personally know, yet we feel touched by their pain or on the other hand, we are awed by their success. Becoming most affected when we observe people face life threatening obstacles, suffer tragic loss or acheive life time goals- despite the relentless threats they may have faced, we are drawn in; discouraged, saddened or enraptured, excited.. somehow emotionally stirred, softened or swayed.
Keeping the protagonists wanting, needing, hoping for something, willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it, will hook the reader just as real life hooks the rest of us standing just outside the perimeters, hopeful to cheer our man on to success, despite the highest stakes.

We’re shaped by our hurts

“When a character’s hurts are unique and specific, what propels them on their journeys- motivates them- paradoxically becoming universal.”. Donald Maass, a leading literary agent explains why many novels fail to sell and what writers can and must do to succeed. ” the deeper you dig into what drives your protagonist, the more readers will be able to connect.”

He tells us ” when actions, motives and principles come together the effect can be profound.” In order to really connect with your reader, you must have your protagonist weighed down by some sort of struggle, defy the odds and ultimately succeed at the end. His strength of character could be revealed through the slow exposure of his ” inner struggle” ( universal-thus connecting with your reader) and his ultimate victory over it by the end. You could try sending this main character on some type of mission to save “the world” and as he does he also saves himself.

This does not mean the writer must create a superhero; on the contrary, the more ordinary the character and the more ” relatable” his dilemna , the more likely the reader is to connect – feeling what the character on the mission feels. Mix in the slow breakdown of the character’s resistance to ” fall in love, forgive his brother or her sister, forget the past …” whatever the dilemna he or she fights, the greater the tension and the bigger draw for the reader.

After all, in our own everyday lives aren’t our biggest accomplishments the ones we fought hardest to get? How far would you allow yourself to be held captive to your own life story had there not been inner and outer struggles to overcome along the way? My guess is that you would lose interest in your main character, becoming detached and bored, and all too prematurely put the book aside, turning the lights out early – preferring to sleep instead!

When creating a story the writer must remember to shape the protagonist by her hurts- reveal her growing inner strength as she slowly overcomes her pain- the same way each of us as human beings hope to do in our own everyday real lives. By healing ourselves of our hurts , and the writer’s characters of theirs, we heal our readers of their own.


What exactly is a transition? The dictionary defines it as ” a passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another: change. Bharti Kirchner, Author and Contributing Editor to THE WRITER, defines it as “a tool, a bridge, a shortcut that signals a shift in the story, be it time, place, mood, tone or point of view. It connects scenes, chapters and even paragraphs, so that the story is unified and plot events make sense.” Proper transition, she says, makes for smooth reading and minimizes confusion, moving the story forward or backward in time as necessary, and shifting the location.

Two of my children have graduated from High School,each within a year of one another, and have moved on or “transitioned” into college and jobs, into adult life. My third child remains in High School, transitioning to his Junior year and to becoming a driver next year, while my forth and youngest son will transition to seventh grade. All of these “changes” move my sons forward, connecting the chapters of their lives through different scenes and locations, each moving them a step further. My marriage, buying and building homes, having children, getting divorced were all stages of my life that eventually led me here, at least until the next transition pushes me somewhere else.

In writing, we use transitions to indicate that the characters have moved from one location to another, from one day to the next, from the present to the past or vice versa and even from the physical environment of the scene to the internal thoughts of the character. In order to make the character more endearing to the reader and to help heighten the emotional stakes, the writer will dig deep into the consciousness of the character before returning back to what is actually going on in the physical scene. This trick allows the reader to stop for a moment, dive vertically -deeper into the mind of the character- while simultaneously gliding laterally foward through the rest of the story. Such transitions might be: The next day, or She stared at her for a moment before nodding and slipping out the door, or He stared at the framed picture of his father on the mantel and thought back to the time…

Perhaps in life when we must say good-bye to our child who leaves for college or to say a final farewell to a loved one who leaves us before we are ready to let him go, despite that sometimes plot events did not always make sense and his chapters were not always so unified, we could remember the many special scenes in his story that we were priviledged to be part of as we traveled alongside him through the transitions of locations, frame of mind and through time.

Liars Prosper

Upon opening Stephen King’s book ” Stephen King On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”, the reader stumbles upon one of King’s very first pages that holds four simple lines: “Honesty’s the best policy. – Miguel de Cervantes and Liars Prosper. – Anonymous.

Two very opposite thoughts, yet neither is wrong and both are correct. In life and in writing.

Years ago, my former mother in law told me once that I should never lie because whenever I tried ( now come on- we ALL have lied at least once ) it was obvious that I was bending the truth or not telling the truth AT ALL. Not to sound too “goody goody”, but I was never prone to lying to begin with so it didn’t surprise me to hear that I was no good at it.

However, now years later, I wonder how much being a bad liar hurts me as a writer. Certainly, honesty IS the best policy.. at least most of the time.. but lying or “spinning a tale” is one of the writer’s necessary tools, at least when it comes to writing fiction, for building his story. If making something up is considered to be a lie then writers of fiction must lie well if they want to build a story worth reading. And in the process of making something up ..or “lying well”…prospering would not be a bad thing at all!